The last time the Giants and Jets played in a game that was anywhere near as meaningful as Saturday's, Phil Simms spent some time on the sideline daydreaming about another championship.
It was Dec. 18, 1988. The Jets had already been eliminated from playoff contention, but the Giants needed the victory to clinch a postseason spot. The Jets pulled ahead early, but the Giants rallied in the fourth quarter and took a 21-20 lead when Simms hit Lionel Manuel on a 9-yard touchdown pass.
"I remember late in the game we went ahead and I said, 'Well, it's just kind of like we were all year,' " Simms recalled this week. "It was always a struggle, but we found a way to win and get into that position. Then I was really probably standing on the sideline going, and rightly so, even looking back, 'We can win the Super Bowl.' "
Not so fast, Phil.
The Jets may not have had much at stake in terms of their season, but counting a team out in a rivalry as heated and intense as the Jets-Giants games can be a big mistake. The Jets rallied, Al Toon caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Ken O'Brien with 37 seconds left, and came away with a 27-21 victory.
"We called a play in the huddle and I got to the line of scrimmage and I looked up and a safety was covering me, which was very unusual," Toon said. "I looked at Kenny and he looked back and we had a hand audible that we could use whenever we were in a situation where we wanted to run a fade route. We both acknowledged it and we ran it. It was an exciting way to end the season."
Toon caught the pass over safety Tom Flynn.
"I wasn't thinking about [finishing their season]," Toon said. "I was focused on finishing our season off strongly so we could at least have a positive feeling going into the '89 season. Being in the situation where I made the catch to end the Giants' hopes wasn't necessarily the driving motivation."
Good, because it didn't actually accomplish that. The Giants were still alive until later that night when the 49ers -- who had already clinched their playoff fate -- lost to the Rams, 38-16. It prompted one of the most famous quotes of Simms' career, when he told a reporter that evening he was watching the 49ers "laying down like dogs."
"When you have one team with nothing to play for and another with everything to play for, it's a disgusting feeling," Giants linebacker Carl Banks said this week on WFAN. "You weren't prepared for what team showed up. You prepared for the team that you thought was going to come into the game and play uninspired . . . But we had nobody to blame but ourselves."
Sound familiar, Giants fans?
"I think we knew we were the better team," said defensive lineman George Martin, whose career ended with that 1988 game. "We came out, not unlike a few contests that the Giants have had this year, and we were flat, we were lackluster, and I think we were out-competed that day. It was a shock to us because I think that we all felt that we could control our own fate and beat the Jets."
That game was intense because one of the teams had a playoff chance and the other could strip it from them. This weekend, for the first time in their 12 regular-season meetings, both teams need a win to help them advance to the playoffs. It is probably the most important meeting between them since their first preseason game when the Jets beat the Giants at the Yale Bowl in 1969 to further bridge the gap between the AFL and NFL following Super Bowl III.
The names have changed since 1988 -- several players playing Saturday were not even born when that game was played -- but the rivalry has not. If anything, it's grown. The teams share a stadium. The Jets have been to two straight AFC title games and the Giants watched from home. They are on much more even footing.
"I think there's more of a younger generation that has become Jets fans and are loyal," Toon said, noting that he thinks Rex Ryan helps with that. "Clearly he's more wired for the contemporary crowd, the younger crowd, and they can appreciate his perspective on things. He's kind of fun, he's a character. He is who he is, and he doesn't really try to hide it. That's kind of refreshing."
Of course that kind of personality gap is nothing new for these teams. Though the players said there wasn't much interaction between the teams socially in the late 1980s -- the Giants were in New Jersey and the Jets were still based on Long Island -- there were some functions and events in Manhattan where they would mingle. Martin recalled one such banquet.
"Mark Gastineau showed up in a full-length mink coat and a large entourage," Martin said. "That's when I realized: You know what, there really is a difference between the Giants and the Jets players."